"It occurred to me, one day, to ask the question: “Why did the Babylonians invent astrology?” And what did this mean? What did it reveal to us now about their worries, their aims and their relationship with the gods and the future? And further, what did it tell us about their traditions of scholarship and learning?
Once I began to look into these areas an additional question arose: how much of this ancient astrology was still in use today? Or, put another way, how much of this Mesopotamian intellectual life has seeped into the modern world. Surprisingly, as it turned out, quite a lot.
Researching this book proved fascinating. I began by reading many commentaries on the subject but quickly realised that dealing with secondary sources was not the way to go. Part of the problem was that while astrological omen literature was a very significant part of the ancient scholarly world many modern scholars were very hostile to astrology and so virtually ignored it. The prejudices of these scholars were obvious: Professor H.W.F. Saggs, an expert on ancient Babylon, spends little time exploring this rich tradition, complaining that astrology was
“...a folly which, to judge by the space devoted to it in certain daily newspapers and women’s magazines, is still far from eradicated from our civilization.”
Archaeologist, Georges Roux, seemed personally outraged by the labours of the ancient experts when he wrote,
“...while the most objectionable end-product of the Mesopotamian belief in destiny, astrology, permeated and corrupted the religions of the West.”
It was obvious that I was going to have to start at the beginning: I therefore obtained translations of every Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian astrological tablet that I could find. I wanted to read them myself and come to my own conclusions. The added advantage was that these texts were on tablets found in the royal or temple libraries and had not been tampered with since the day they were written. They were an authentic voice of ancient scholars.
The Mesopotamian kings had extensive libraries. For example, king Ashurbanipal (king of Assyria from 668 BC), in his palace of Nineveh, northern Iraq, had a library which judging by the catalogue lists which have survived, contained texts on astrology and astronomy, rituals, medicine, dreams, and the great epics like Gilgamesh. The codification of celestial omens was extensive and was compiled into a great canonical series called the Enuma Anu Enlil – after its opening line “When the gods Anu and Enlil...”.
Ashurbanipal had a well-organised network of specialised scholars reporting to him regularly. Not only were the various commercial and political events noted but every astronomical observation of significance was recorded. It is evident that part of the duty of the astrologers was to keep a daily watch upon the heavens and to send a steady stream of information back to the king. These reports of astrological phenomena were almost always accompanied by an interpretation which gave a brief prediction of the effect upon the kingdom.The tablets found in the royal libraries prove that such reporting came from all the larger cities of the Assyrian empire.
The Mesopotamians believed that the task of mankind was to serve the gods. It was vitally important to know precisely what the gods required. This is no doubt why they saw the night sky with its constellations as the shitir shame – the book of heaven upon which was written the commands of the gods.
The Mesopotamians saw all anomalous phenomena – omens – as divine communications which might be read by the trained diviner. In consequence these diviners, members of a specialist intellectual fraternity attached to the palace or temple, devoted their time to the interpretation of such omens which were drawn from a vast range of natural phenomena.
For these experts, celestial events - the movements of the clouds, the direction of winds, the birth of malformed animals or children, the occurrence of lightning, thunder, earthquakes or floods - were never gratuitous, all had significance, all potentially revealed the desires of the gods if only these messages could be read correctly. And to read them correctly was the task of the diviners.
But these omens were evidently seen as just signs of a possible future not portents of some irrevocable coming event. The future – the will of the gods – was negotiable, was malleable, was never, it seems, considered to be fated as we understand the term today for rituals existed to change the portended future.
A considerable amount of ancient Mesopotamian astrology has survived into the present. One example: Mars was identified with the god Nergal – an evil god who ruled the fires of hell and the fierce summer heat which destroyed crops. He was a god of the underworld, god of the grave and judge of the dead. Nergal’s mythological connection with death appears in the astrological reports where there are numerous references to Mars causing widespread disease or carnage. Nergal was also the god of plague, fevers and other serious public diseases. The association of Mars with plague is still current in modern astrology.
In one sense this is not so surprising: the predictions were passed on by the Greek and Roman astrologers who were then studied by later European astrologers who were themselves beginning to produce texts. This process gained momentum during the latter half of the seventeenth century. In turn, these European astrological books have been a great influence upon modern astrologers.
I wrote this book for a general audience with an interest in astrology and so was pleasantly surprised to discover that Dr. Stephanie Dalley of the University of Oxford and Prof. N. Swerdlow of the University of Chicago (now at the California Institute of Technology) both noted the book as a useful introduction to this important aspect of the intellectual life of ancient Mesopotamia.
It is regrettable that From the Omens of Babylon is now out of print. However, it is my intention, when time permits, to revise material for a second edition as since its publication there has been significant new work in this area."
ASTROLOGY IN ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA
Among the many significant discoveries excavated from Assyrian king Ashurbanipal's royal library in Nineveh were tablets documenting the development of Mesopotamian astrology, now recognized as the earliest astrological science.
Drawing upon translations of the Nineveh library tablets as well as many other ancient sources, Michael Baigent reveals the roots of modern astrology in the Babylonian science of omens. He explains how astrology in the Babylonian and Assyrian empires was concerned not with individuals but with the king and the state. He shows that by the first dynasty of Babylon, around 1900 to 1600 BC, astrology had become a systematic discipline, the preserve of highly trained specialists intent upon interpreting omens from the movements of planets and stars. He explores Mesopotamian mythology as it relates to the planets and to astrology as well as to Mesopotamian religion, magic, and politics--for the mythology of Babylon and Assyria served the state and thus changed as the state changed. He shows how this ancient form of astrology uniquely represents both Sun and Moon as masculine entities and Saturn (Ninurta) as the principle of order imposed on chaos. He examines the connections between ancient astrology and the symbolism of Western religions, such as how the "Greek" or "Templar" cross may symbolize the Babylonian god Nabu, now known as Mercury.
Baigent reveals how the religious and magical aspects of early Babylonian cosmological speculation played a significant role in the Renaissance, influencing prominent figures such as Cosimo de Medici, Marsilio Ficino, and Botticelli.